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  • Writer's pictureKady Potter

Do you need to learn Japanese to live in Japan? - the long answer

Every so often, a quote or article comes along that has the foreigner population in Japan up in arms. Like this NYT piece on Pico Iyer, a man who's been here 25+ years but avoided learning Japanese so he could 'keep the sense of mystery in his life'.

Ask the other expats who comment on and rant about these stories: we hate this. We hate reading about people who make zero effort to learn the language, but somehow manage to pull a nice life out of their ass. Mostly because we've been putting the effort in for years, but we still get replied to in English every damn time.

Japanese isn't an easy language to learn, that I admit. I'm not fluent yet by a long shot. But I'm trying - I know how to say/understand a lot by myself now. And so it’s frustrating when people think they can breeze through life without knowing a single word.

Are foreigners in Japan who look down on other, less language-minded foreigners in Japan any better than the 'learn English or GTFO' crowd they left back in their home countries?

Why aim for an authentic experience when you can't understand it?

First of all, as this is more of a question about *living* in Japan, I shouldn't be counting the tourists. But I do want to talk about the tourists a little bit.

Because it's always the 'tell me where I can hang out with the locals! I want to drink with Japanese people!' tourists who know zero Japanese. The ones who turn their noses up at foreign-owned bars and restaurants, but can't even order a beer when they're in front of a Japanese bartender.

If you're one of those tourists: for goodness' sake, stop it.

You can decide you only want to visit the 'proper' Japanese places, there’s nothing wrong with that. Get your authentic Japan experience, and enjoy it. But back up your snobbery with a decent grounding in the language, or suck it up and go somewhere that'll give you the English menu.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs never mentioned kanji...

Back to the expats. The basic debate that stories about foreigners always reignites is this: do you need to know Japanese to live in Japan, or not?

'Need' depends on your personal situation here, so let's walk through the options.

Are you an English teacher, with no plans to be anything other than an English teacher ever in your life? Then no, you probably don't need any Japanese.

Do you live in a major city or tourist-y area, where everything's handily translated into English already? No real need there, as far as I can see.

Are all your friends in Japan other foreigners - who've been here longer, know more than you, and can help out whenever you get stuck? You don't need Japanese either.

Are you trying to be taken more seriously, build any career other than teaching English, want to 'hang with the locals', and be able to phone the gas company by yourself? There's the need.

You can stay in the comfy, safe foreigner bubble for years, if you want. Decades. I know people who've been here 10+ years who can barely say 10+ Japanese words.

(Bonus question: Are you married to a Japanese person who can speak English? You'll get by without Japanese, sure, but if you want to win an argument... you'd best get the dictionary out.)

Ask not what Japan can do for you, but what you can do for (or in) Japan

Now, for another question. The thing expats are really debating whenever this issue comes up.

If you're planning to live in Japan long-term and make a life and career here, should you learn Japanese? Should you knuckle down, study the kanji and grammar points, and know how to form whole sentences?

And the answer to that is absolutely yes, for everyone.

I see the following posted on Reddit’s Japan-related subs roughly once a day:

"I've got a degree and 6+ years experience in my field, but I can't seem to find a job in Japan! Oh, by the way, I don't know any Japanese at all, LOL. What can I do as a proper professional career in Japan with zero Japanese? There must be something!"

You can teach English, mate, but if you think you can work a regular office job with no Japanese you're shit out of luck.

As above, yes it's possible to live in Japan for as long as you like while surviving on English only. It's surprisingly easy. The argument against doing that is that you're not making the most of being in Japan that way.

You can go and live in an English bubble anywhere in the world, pretty much. It's easy, and it's safe and comfy. And it's boring, and limiting, and makes the act of moving to another country in the first place completely pointless. Your surroundings might be all new and shiny, but (save for the crappier job prospects) fundamentally your life will be the same as if you’d stayed home.

And when the time comes when you want (or need) to leave that bubble, the onus is on you to know how to communicate with the world outside it. Life won't keep dropping the English menus in your lap.

If your life plan for staying in Japan doesn't include getting a grasp on the language, then what are you here for? Maybe that's the question we should be asking instead.


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